I spent the past several days traveling to, being in, and returning home from Amsterdam. This city had never been a place I felt drawn to visit. Perhaps, this was due to my experience as an undergrad, where many of my peers planned their study abroad experience with Amsterdam as a destination with their top priority to spend several months getting high and partying. These two pastimes have never been particularly enticing to me, either. There is a reason one of my nicknames is “granmarieke.”
Many different energy bodies exist within me. I am an old spirit. I enjoy quiet and calm. I like to be cozy and warm in pjs in the evening rather than out at a bar or club among strangers. I also have a healthy inner child, who is thrilled by sights and sounds that may be unique to my own way of being in the world. It’s hard to say since I can only speak from my own and no one else’s personal experience.
Regardless of past desires, this past Thursday morning I found myself on a bus bound for Amsterdam. The bus left a little late, and according to the rather irritable driver, we were lucky to leave at all. That morning there had been a hurricane with extreme winds in the Netherlands, and planes were grounded, trains stopped, and all other transit, including buses traveling between Amsterdam and other cities, at a standstill as well.
The driver was quite surly, shouting at people that people traveling together had to board together, so if one person’s traveling companion was stuck in the crowd surging toward the bus in a mass of teeming bodies they would be booted off until they could reunite with said party and try again.
Holding a hot beverage? The same scenario would unfold.
I can understand the stress the driver must have been under, driving through gale force winds and dealing with clueless travelers, very few of who likely spoke any Dutch. Once the bus was in motion, he seemed to calm down and became quite chatty, offering a mini tour of our surroundings and what to expect upon arriving in Amsterdam.
The niceties were short-lived, however. At one point, a tourist’s entire back of chocolate balls went barreling down the aisle and onto the floor around the driver.
This is a problem for me, he growled. Whoever these chocolates belong to will come and claim them. The driver pulled the bus over and waited for someone to come and collect the chocolates. No one moved.
I very nearly got up just to get rid of them but decided against it for fear of retribution should he think the chocolates were mine. Every time the bus came to a halt, more chocolate balls rolled forward, bouncing and plunking down the steps and onto the lower platform where the driver sat. I felt for him, but my own sense of self-preservation kept me from going anywhere near the shark-infested waters.
When he pulled over and stopped the bus at the station in Amsterdam, several more chocolate followed the momentum, bouncing down the stairs and rolling out the door.
Thank you very much folks for everywhere chocolate, everywhere chocolate.
When I got off the bus, I noticed a small congregation of chocolate balls beneath the entrance to the bus; rough day for being a bus driver.
While I love traveling, the greatest source of anxiety for me when journeying to a new place is figuring out where I am going and how the local transit works. I was blessed on this journey to be traveling with my husband’s daughter, who was hell-bent on figuring out the travel logistics during our trip.
It was wonderful, stressful, and inspiring to witness her process from start to finish, beginning with anxiety and some panic, which was replaced by growing confidence and leadership over the course of our several days in Amsterdam. For me, it was lovely to sit back and be a passenger, only periodically opening Google maps to lend a hand in moments of dire overwhelm. I loved sharing a glass of wine with her on the eve of her 21st birthday.
It was equally wonderful to discover how compatible we were as traveling companions. This is a rarity for me. I am an introvert and have developed the desire to have very few scheduled events when I travel, perhaps in response to very scheduled family trips during my childhood. My favorite course of action is to be free to wander, take in the architecture, sights, sounds, people, and energy of a place. It breathes life into my soul to wander, and I love the feeling of creating a small space of belonging in a foreign land, however fleeting.
I have never felt like I really belonged anywhere in the world. Spending only a every few months to upwards of a couple of years in any one place, I have been a transient member of every community I have joined in my adult life. This experience has afforded me the opportunity to develop relationships with foreign lands and people. It has also instilled in me a warring conflict of the need to be mobile in order to feel truly alive with the equally strong desire to create a home nest where I can burrow with my loved ones and belongings. These themes of migration and mobility vs. stability and inertia have been ever-present since I left home at the age of 18.
Traveling with my husband’s daughter, I was heartened to spend time discussing this shared quality we each possessed. I was amazed and uplifted to see in her so many of the experiences I moved through when I was her age and first discovering my self, the world, and my place in it. I was thankful to be able to explore with her, deconstructing the elements of the foreign yet familiar culture we witnessed: foreign in that we were clearly in a city with its own history and movements; familiar in the ways the city has been influenced by an increasingly global world, which is also hell-bent on consumerism. I was equally pleased to be able to wander in and out of shops, to stop and take photos of the sights my own eyes were drawn to, and to generally just be with this new place in the company of a fellow traveler.
It is my general habit to write as I travel, noting the vicissitudes of my wanderings as I go. However, it is only the morning after returning home from this most recent excursion that I have been able to find a few quiet moments to begin to quiet the swirling of experiences and emotions from the past few days and try to tame and coax them into words on a static page.
What is Amsterdam? What was my experience in this place?
While I have a sense of the ineffable, I feel an equal obligation to draw as much meaning as I can while the experience is still freshly coursing through my veins. It is challenging to draw meaning from such a meaningful experience. I am not sure any form of expression can truly capture the range of emotions, thoughts, and energy inspired by each step on foreign ground (well, foreign pavement, to be more precise, though to be fair, we did tread upon cobblestones here and there as well).
In Amsterdam, we visited four museums in two days: Anne Frank Huis, Stedelijk, Van Gogh, and Moco.
I am still processing the meaning from the intensity of each of those four experiences packed so closely together. We also explored many corners of the city, predominantly on foot. I think it was a combination of so much sensory input combined with the cold temperatures (we basically walked around voluntarily in an outdoor refrigerator for three days) that caused me to collapse from exhaustion at the end of each day. Rather than put virtual pen to paper, I gave in to my body’s need to shut down, allowing all of the experiences of the day to slowly settle like the flakes in a snow globe that has just been shaken and set down on a solid surface.
Only now that the debris has finally formed a quiet layer on the ground can I see the city clearly in the center of the globe.
A labyrinth of houses of similar shape but different size all squashed together, so much so that many seemed to be squeezing apart at the seams. They sat side-by-side yet separate, facades tilting forward and back as the earth beneath them shifted over time. While the buildings moved in their own architectural dance through time, people moved in what appeared to me a chaotic symphony of motion. Car, tram, bus, pedestrian, and cyclist all made their way around every street and corner. It was I who was most overwhelmed by this cacophony. I was the strident tone, striking dissonance with the otherwise structured melody.
Anne Frank Huis
The museum that resonated the most powerfully for me was the Anne Frank Huis (House in Dutch). Is this because I am a Jew? Quite likely. I mean, I am a Jew, and I feel a raw, emotional vulnerability knowing that even today, while I do not practice Judaism or believe in an all-knowing god, I could be targeted simply for my ancestral heritage and frizzy, curly hair.
I spent most of my time in the museum trying to cope with the energy coming as I moved through each floor of the very tall house. Was it the energy from the eight beings who had hidden in this building for three years? Was it the house itself, relieved to find solidarity in a being with sensitive energy such as my own? Whatever this energy represent and from where it originated, it was drawn straight to me, so much so that I had trouble keeping my balance as it barreled into me.
Simply being and breathing in such a powerful space was emotional, and feeling constantly propelled forward did not allow for any processing time from one room to the next. After moving through several floors in a kind of human cattle herd, I found myself near to tears, yet there was absolutely no space or time for weeping. As I descended the final set of stairs that brought me back to the first floor, there was a large panel with four images set in a square of Anne Frank and an interpretive sign to the right with the words, Her would-haves are our opportunities. The panel was largely covered by the modern staircase, making it very difficult to read the text below the title.
The placement of this panel raised a small alarm for me. It also raised the question, Why? Why place a panel that seemed intended to evoke thought and reflection where it would be blocked from view? I had to place my camera between the braces for the stairs in order to get the image and text into the shot without the stairs.
I purchased a few postcards, thankful that the bookstore was relatively tasteful in its contents – mostly postcards and books; I found the graphic novel/cartoon a bit over the top. I had woken up that morning wonder what a bookstore for this topic might sell. Anne Frank dolls, I had morbidly wondered while lying in the dark of morning?
My relief at the quiet normalcy and unassuming design of the bookstore and its contents was replaced by an uncomfortable, unsettled feeling that only increased over the course of the day and the weekend. I quietly drew a wall down around this discomfort, lifting it temporarily from time to time and only opening it completely when I was safely returned to my the comfort and familiarity of my own home.
In sharing my impressions with my husband, I began to realize just how disappointed I was with the museum. On a positive note, Anne Frank’s writing are so poignant and ever-relevant that she has in some way become the face of the Holocaust. Her raw honesty and vulnerability draw people to this place by the droves. They come from all over the world. In fact, so many people wish to visit the Anne Frank House that tickets are only available online, and you are given a window of about 15 minutes, noted on your ticket, to enter the museum.
I imagine that it was because of the millions of people who pass through this space that the curators created an audio tour. Visitors take a small handset that they point at a small square with a number that has been placed in a few locations in each room.
Preferring to have my own personal museum experience, I had never opted to use an audio aid at a museum, but this seemed like a reasonable time to try something new.
The audio tour was fine. Conservative and somewhat bland, sharing mostly facts in a linear timeline. The panels on the walls shared equally traditional information. There were snippets from Anne’s journal, brief bios of the people living in the house, and a timeline of events – both within the house and without – that spanned the three years they spent in hiding.
The space was powerful in and of itself, along with several of the curator’s choices; for example, placing a mirror to show the sky from the staircase leading up to the small attic, where Anne would go to see the sky and birds and world beyond the interior of the house.
I was deeply moved by a small piece of paper with a grocery list and Anne’s tin of marbles, as I seem to find marbles everywhere in the world that I go.
The sole survivor was Anne’s faster, Otto Frank, and a black and white image of his standing, leaning against a wooden post in the otherwise empty room sent chills through my body. I imagined my own father standing there, having lost his entire family.
I believe that Otto Frank made many of the choices with regard to what personal items, and furniture, and décor were put on display when the house became a museum. I recognize the power in the simplicity and relative emptiness on the one hand, but I also find a lost opportunity to bring humanity into the space. Was this an intentional choice to communicate the loss of humanity that Jews experienced during the Holocaust?
Having worked as an interpreter in museums, I was also disappointed by the separateness of each visitor’s experience. With every listening to their handheld audio, there was very little, if any, interaction, even among people visiting the space together.
Was this an intentional choice on the part of the curators to give the sense that in the end, each person is alone?
Finally, there was only one space in the entire museum, which invited any kind of visitor participation: the guestbook at the very end.
For me, there were so many lost opportunities for reflection, discussion, dialogue, and participation. Even with the many visitors, there could, as the very least, have been a bulletin board with sticky notes for visitors to post words and phrases. There could have been a question at the top to invite reflection: What have you done to build empathy today? How have you helped another human being?
There could be little suggestions for evoke thought and action: Smile or make eye contact with another museum visitor. How does this action make you feel?
There were no museum guides. What would the experience be like with an interpreter taking each group of people through the space? What if visitors were given a choice to go through silently (or with handheld audio) or with a guide?
What if there was a room for communicating and creating artistic expression through different forms of media? Digital camera screens, watercolors, pen and paper, a blackboard or wall canvas?
Finally, why was there no link from the experience of these families and so many others with people today? We all suffer as we move through life and try to make sense of the senseless, whether we are raised in privilege and safety or we are suffering persecution for our religion, identity, gender, and beyond.
There was none of this in the layout of the museum, and so I was left feeling a kind of disappointment and longing. The museum exhibits focused predominantly on the perspective and experience of Anne. To some degree this makes sense, as it was her writing that inspired the creation of the museum. On the other hand, there were eight people hiding in the house and people protecting them during the time they were in hiding. There were millions of other people who have become mainly anonymous.
The Stedelijk had a very interactive section of the museum, so much so that visitors did not always understand where they were allowed to participate with pen and ink and where they were not. We walked past a mother and daughter at the interactive exhibit. The daughter had just completed a green butterfly person (see middle image below) when a museum staffer came running up, exclaiming that this was not the area where to was ok to draw on the wall. Whoops!
Immigration and Homogeneity
In my home country, the presence of immigrants does not seem unique or even very apparent. The United States is a country inspired in great part by immigration, which makes the notion, “Make America Great (aka White) Again” even more of a farce, but that is a story for another time.
In the Netherlands, the present of so many immigrants was noticeable in contrast to the tall, willowy, and generally light-haired Dutch who have been the predominant, visual feature of humanity in this small country.
I wondered as I wandered and witnessed this blend of people from all over the world, what is the experience of the Dutch in the face of a changing culture? What is the experience of the immigrants who have left their own culture and are expected to assimilate?
My traveling companion and I were distressed to see the effects of globalization and consumerism, both of which were thriving in the city. Old, incredible buildings with so many stories to tell sat above storefronts for Subway, Starbucks, and several other US American chain stores. Even having witnessed the migration of Starbucks to cities like London and Paris, I am still jarred to see not one, but many of these chain stores. I travel to foreign lands to experience and learn from a culture unlike my own, not to buy a Starbucks collector’s mug with images of windmills on it.
It was the hole in the wall, locally owned businesses that I enjoyed discovering. I love talking with shopkeepers about their wares, especially connecting with those individuals who have come from another country and created a new life in a foreign land.
I was surprised by the presence of many coffee shops that could have been in Portland, Oregon….or were the Portland shops inspired by Amsterdam?
Paying a mere 14 euros for the bus to from Brussels to Amsterdam! I prefer the train, but the trains in Europe are surprisingly pricey. I will take 14 euros!
The presence of easily accessible public transit, and the ability to walk and walk and walk around a beautiful city.
Meeting the canine mascots of our morning Bagels and Beans breakfast find and a restaurant where we sat at the bar in a neat, old house nestled into a corner of downtown not far from Centraal Station.
Witnessing my travel companion discover herself anew as a world traveler.
Diving into the swirling, organized chaos of life in a dynamic place.
The presence of SO many bicycles, bicycle lanes, and bicycle culture!!
Water, water, everywhere!!
Coming home to my beloved, my fur babies, and a hot shower.